Don’t Let Distorted Vocals Fool You

When you think of distorted vocals, I bet you’re thinking of screamed lyrics and guttural noises. It’s not hard to see why your mind would go there – distortion has been a huge element of rock and metal since the early days.

Between distorted basses & guitars, a heavily distorted vocal can find itself right at home in a modern metal mix.

But if you think that’s the only place you’re going to find distorted vocals, I’m about to turn your world upside down.

What if I told you 100% of vocals you hear in a professional mix in 2017 and beyond are going to be distorted?

Defining Distortion

The fundamental reason this sounds so farfetched is our collective definition of distortion. For the average listener, distortion is going to be noticeable and immediately identifiable as such. Unless it makes sense in the song, they want it to sound intentional and clean.

As producers and engineers, we know better. Distortion happens at all levels in music – whether it’s on the way in, during the mix, or even being reproduced on playback.

The technical side of our industry takes on the monotonous task of measuring distortion in as much detail as possible. Manufacturers will measure the amount of distortion their microphones or preamps pick up, commonly referring to it as THD (total harmonic distortion).

Why don’t I hear it?

Don’t worry – most of us don’t, and that just means these manufacturers are doing their job. For transparent audio, we want the THD to be as low as possible. By using equipment with a low THD, we’re minimizing the influence our equipment imprints on a sound.

Adding Good Distortion

In a lot of situations, we may not want that pristine clarity provided by a low THD. While a lot of engineers won’t say they want distortion specifically – they’re looking for a distortion solution on a daily basis.

Good distortion comes in many forms from tubes to plugins. Nearly every element of processing is going to add some harmonic variations to your signal, which is the exact definition of distortion.

Most commonly, we’re going to call it saturation. We’re going to call it color. We might even call it warmth.

All of these names are just variations of distortion because we’re afraid of a negative connotation of the word. If it works for you to call it something else, by all means go with it. We’re not here to limit your audio vocabulary, just to make sure you know what’s going on in the background of that “warm” sounding preamp.

In-The-Box Distortion

Vocals are subject to some of the heaviest post-processing in audio, regardless of genre. As such, we’re seeing tools like Gain Reduction Deluxe make their way into the vocal chain of not just rock and metal, but country, pop & beyond.

The distortion levels of compressors like Gain Reduction Deluxe can be added to any vocal in a much more subtle way than tube distortion allows. You start with saturation that makes a vocal sound crisp and cuts through a mix, and can work your way up to full-gain distortion if that’s the effect you’re after.

The best part about this type of distortion is it’s ability to give you mix-ready vocals in a fraction of the time you’d need to take with a traditional vocal chain.

Rather than freaking out over a bland vocal recording through a transparent mic/preamp combo, adding a bit of saturation can resuscitate your lead vocal track.

Can We Call A Spade A Spade?

I don’t care how you want to refer to your distortion as something else, but we need to stop the mentality that clean is always better.

I could care less if my microphone or preamp has less than 0.05% THD – I care about how it sounds. If it doesn’t sound good, it’s not worth my time. There are too many options out there to get caught up on the “clean” hype that gets built up around this gear.

When it comes time to add some saturation to my vocals, I know exactly how I’m going to do it.